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Women’s quota implementation may go beyond 2029

Sep 21, 2023 11:33 AM IST

The bill states that political reservation for women will only come into effect after the relevant census figures are published and the delimitation is done on the basis of that

The women’s reservation bill, which returned to Parliament after 13 years, was passed by the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, with both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress backing the landmark legislation. It looks set to clear the Rajya Sabha as well. But even after the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam is passed in the ongoing special session of Parliament, it will take time till India implements quotas for women in the Lok Sabha and state assemblies, perhaps beyond the 2029 deadline that some reports have suggested -- unless this government and the one elected in 2024 push for more constitutional amendments, and expedite not just the next census, but also the process of delimitation.

The bill provides for one-third reservation for women in the Lok Sabha, state assemblies and the legislative assembly of Delhi. (HT Photo)

The 128th Constitution Amendment Bill states that political reservation for women will only come into effect after the relevant census figures are published and the delimitation – an exercise comprising the revision of seat numbers in Parliament and the redrawing of constituency boundaries – is done on the basis of that.

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How census and delimitation are connected to the quota

It’s important to understand two articles of the Constitution for this. One is Article 332, on reservation. Changes will need to be made to this, and the constituencies reserved for women identified. As home minister Amit Shah said in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, it makes sense to have the delimitation commission do this -- because that is its job.

The second is Article 82 of the Constitution, which asks for reallocation of seats to ensure fair representation after every decennial census. After the first few rounds of the census following independence, the Union government constituted the delimitation commission to reapportion and reallocate parliamentary seats. The 42nd amendment, passed during the Emergency in 1976, froze the delimitation of constituencies until after the 2001 Census.

In 2001 – even as the process of the national census had begun – the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee government introduced the 84th amendment to the Constitution, extending this freeze on the number of constituencies till 2026.

“There have been consistent demands, both for and against undertaking the exercise of fresh delimitation. Keeping in view the progress of family planning programmes in different parts of the country, the government, as part of the national population policy strategy, recently decided to extend the current freeze on undertaking fresh delimitation up to the year 2026 as a motivational measure to enable the state government to pursue the agenda for population stabilisation,” read the statement of objects and reasons to the final act in 2001.

This clearly hinted at the concerns that some states with larger populations were going to gain disproportionately at the expense of other provinces that had successfully controlled birth rates. Thus, though the redrawing of seats went ahead (and were notified ahead of the 2009 general elections), the number of seats were frozen.

In effect, the amendment replaced the year 2000 with the year 2026 in Articles 81, 82, 170 and 332. The crucial Article 82 now said that, “...until the relevant figures for the first census taken after the year 2026 have been published, it shall not be necessary to readjust… the allocation of seats in the House of the People to the States as readjusted on the basis of the 1971 census…”

Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker Nishikant Dubey and law minister Arjun Ram Meghwal pointed to this and said that under Article 82, seat arrangements were frozen till 2026, and therefore, argued that meeting the Opposition’s demand of implementing women’s quota in the 2024 general elections was not possible.

As an aside, both DMK lawmaker in the Lok Sabha K Kanimozhi and Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK chief MK Stalin have expressed concern about the impact of delimitation on states such as Tamil Nadu in terms of their relative strength in the house.

Because of the amendment, delimitation can only take place on the basis of the first census held after 2026. This can either be the 2031 census – if the decennial exercise runs on schedule – or the much-delayed 2021 census if it is notified in 2026 or 2027.

The final report of the census usually takes two years to be published (the final report of the 2011 census was published in 2013). So even if the census begins in 2026, it will only be fully published by 2028. If the decennial schedule is followed, it won’t be ready before 2033.

After this, the delimitation process has to begin.

India’s last delimitation commission – which only redrew constituency boundaries – was constituted in 2002, began its work in 2004 and finished its report in 2007. It was tabled in Parliament in 2008 – a six-year process.

The next commission will have a more onerous and fractious task because it will have to reapportion constituencies. With the first census after 2026 (as stated in the amendment) being ready only between 2028 and 2033, there’s a very high likelihood of the reservation for women spilling over to 2034, perhaps even 2039.

To be sure, it is always within the realm of the possible for the government to kick-start the much-delayed census, and also amend Article 82 again (for instance, it could replace the first census after 2026 with the 2021 census in an amendment), but the practicalities, as well as comments made by the law minister in Wednesday’s debate suggest that this is unlikely. Still, what this government chooses to do on that , or what the government that comes to power in 2024 chooses to do, are in the realm of the hypothetical -- and as home minister Shah indicated during his speech in the Lok Sabha, any move to reserve seats for women isn’t going to be accelerated by such discussions. Passing the women’s reservation bill would be a start, he said. That it is.

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